Saguaro Sentinels

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At sundown, they stand in silhouette

Silent in the fading orange light, ultimate icons of the great West

How many parched cowboys, with sweat stained bandanas drooped about their necks, have lead weary, spavined horses through the Sonoran Desert, weaving under and around the massive arms and prickly spines of the Saguaro cactus; all three with their own story of survival?

–No one can look at a Saguaro cactus for the first time and look away.

Saguaros are viewed as much more than a plant.  People see in them what they want to see.  Some loan these desert giants giant John Wayne personalities and loads of Wile E. Coyote animation!  We put Santa outfits on them at Christmas time.  Other seasons find them standing guard in subdivisions, sporting clown-sized sunglasses with a ten gallon hat and a shiny gold star pinned to their chest.  Woodpeckers peck bullet holes in them.  They accept these insults with a wink.  Saguaros steal our hearts because we feel empathy for them, stoic in their thirst against a blinding blue sky.

Saguaro Cactus are part legend, part song, and can be found everywhere–not just growing in portions of southern and central Arizona and northwestern Mexico!   A forth grade classroom in Wisconsin in February has Saguaros pictured and plastered across a cork board in the hall.  These sentinels stand in our living rooms while we watch Clint Eastwood “Hang ‘Em High” all over again.  Saguaros live in everyone who has experienced them (and they are an experience!)  Their arms hold our awe.

I am a changed person after having seen, felt and “knowing” them for the first time at age 54.  They are patient.  They are still.  They are funny. They are real.  They are strange.  They are heroes of the southwest.  They are inspiring and beautiful.  They are survivors.  They are miracles.   They stole my heart.

Facts About Saguaro (pronounced “suh-wha-ro”)

  • Bigger ones are 25-35 feet tall, some reaching 50′
  • The average Saguaro is 125 to 175 years old
  • They don’t grow “arms” until they are at least 50 years old
  • A mature 35′ cactus can weight 7.5 tons or 14,000 lbs.
  • They are 95 percent water
  • Of all U.S. states, only Arizona and California (with only 100 of them) have Saguaros
  • They started to grow in Arizona only 10,000 years ago
  • They produce 40 million seeds in a lifetime and only one seed might survive
  • In full sun, a Saguaro seed will die so they find “nurses”…thriving only under rocks or plants to hide under for protection
  • Cactus spines are finally tough enough at 12″ tall to deter predators such as birds and caterpillars
  • Average annual growth is 8″ to 9″ because they are busy growing a massive root system
  • A mature Saguaro can drink one ton of water after a heavy rain
  • It breathes at night, when air is coolest
  • The spines or spikes can provide as much as 70% shade for the plant
  • Reproduction starts at about 50-60 years of age
  • Their flowers blossom at midnight and die by next day’s noon sun
  • Once pollinated, the flowers become fruit and a source of nutrition for desert animals and insects such as bats, birds, bees, desert tortoises, javelinas, rabbits, squirrels, wood rats coyotes, and foxes.
  • Winged white doves eat the fruit and the seeds are pooped out and spread this way
  • They are reluctant bird houses for gilded flickers and Gila woodpeckers as these long beaked birds dig out cavities to raise their young
  • Saguaros, enjoying celebrity status, bring in the most scientific research dollars to the desert habitat

 A Western Legend about the Saguaro (a tall tale) that is worthy!

Joe Mulhatton was a man living on Arizona’s frontier.  He wears a big hat, boots that go jingle-jangle, and a fringed jacket that’s too clean and well-kept to be anything but decoration.  He is sitting behind a glass of really horrible whiskey in a shack-like saloon telling a story that shouldn’t, by any reasonable standard, attract a single believer.

He lived in Florence, southeast of Phoenix, an area where saguaros grow as thick as the tales, and in 1899 (true story) he told the following tale that was picked up and printed by several newspapers around the Territory.

Joe claimed that giant saguaros around Florence exerted an extraordinary magnetic force, probably , he theorized, from vast beds of copper running beneath the earth.  Because of this great power, each plant could attract or repel any object that drew close.  In his story, Mulhatton told of two unsuspecting tramps who took refuge underneath some of these monsters and of the grisly disaster that ensued.  He swore:

“One of the men was at once drawn up to and impaled on the sharp blades of the cactus, while the octopus-like arms folded around him crushing him through and into the cactus, where his blood, flesh and bones turned into a pulp very much like ordinary mucilage, which trickled out slowly from the aperture made by the passing in of the man’s body.

He went on to tell how the cactus loses its magnetic power while it is digesting its victim.  “So we were enabled to look at this wonderful yet gruesome sight and report about these particulars.”  A negative cactus repelled the second tramp and heaved his body about 100 feet against a positive one, whereupon he met the same fate.

Mulhatton’s story originally ran in the Florence Tribune, and it so impressed the editors of the Tombstone Epitaph that they printed a subsequent version with added details. 

It seems Mulhatton himself approached to within 100 feet of one of the man-eating cacti, but it was “all he could do to resist its influence to draw him in.”  He then returned to the town to fetch a rope, planning to tie it around his waist while four of his friends wrapped their arms around him and held on.  Mulhatton wanted to “approach near enough to minutely examine the wonder without danger.”

A traveling salesman in his work life, brave Joe, we can assume, was accustomed to approaching thorny customers.  In telling his story, however, there is something more going on than a prankster creating nonsense for kerosene-lamp entertainment. At the bottom of the Tribune version, Mulhatton concluded:  “There is very little travel through this wild section of Arizona, or this species of cactus would have been written about sooner.”  (Note the implicit danger in that statement, the romance and the mystery.  What’s out there?   Will I survive it?  Am I tough enough?)

Everyone who ever braved the Western frontier has asked those questions.  The man-eating cactus was less a story than an invitation–a dare to test ourselves against “wild Arizona,” using the saguaro as the lure.  Joe Mulhatton was an early practitioner of the art of promotion, a pioneer in more ways than one, and his legend lives on.

 

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